Studio International

Published 25/06/2001

Rembrandt's Women

National Gallery of Scotland
Edinburgh 8 June–2 Sept 2001

A curiously gauche title this, for a great coup of an exhibition by Edinburgh. Could this be further 'marketing' small talk? However, the National Galleries' Director-General Tim Clifford is surely to be congratulated for what we see before us. Works assembled from over 40 museums around the world, including some 30 paintings and over 40 etchings and drawings. The art historical scholarship here is concerned with Rembrandt's own method as applied to this genre. Rembrandt cherished 'his women' in painting them, as well as seeking out and discreetly expressing their voluptuousness.

In a superb, extended pictorial essay entitled 'The Presence of the Past' (Studio International, Volume l95, No 996, l982) the painter, novelist and critic John Berger addressed the attachment of Rembrandt to one woman in particular — Hendrickje Stoffels. As those portraits by Rembrandt of her demonstrate (and Berger illustrates five that are identified as Stoffels from the Norton Simon Collection, the Frankfurt Stadtische Galerie, from Dahlem, Berlin, from the Louvre, and from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) the most beguiling is that entitled 'Woman in Bed' from the National Gallery, Edinburgh (though not formally attributed). Of this, (in the exhibition) Berger says:

"There is a painting that belongs to this story, where the presence of Rembrandt is almost palpable: Rembrandt the man, as distinct from Rembrandt the painter. By my reckoning it was painted a little before or a little after the birth of their daughter Cornelia. The historians suggest that it may have been a fragment taken from a larger work representing the wedding night of 'Sarah and Tobias'. Perhaps. But if so, the subject was no more than an alibi. Even if it is a fragment, it is certain that Rembrandt finished it, and bequeathed it finally to the spectator as his most intimate painting of the woman he loved.

‘At first sight the painting of Hendrickje in bed is, in every sense of the word, more modest. One feels how, between the man and the woman, a complicity of reticence has been established, a reticence which belongs to the day and not to the night. The curtain that Hendrickje is lifting with her hand marks the threshold between the two.’ (See Studio archive, Berger/Rembrandt.)

It is fortunate indeed that Edinburgh, home of this portrait, has seen fit to assemble the myriad female likenesses of several cherished companions of Rembrandt, and, furthermore, that the curator of the exhibition Julia Lloyd Williams herself, is prepared to credit Rembrandt with an appropriate inventiveness to supplement the verisimilitude of familiarity. It is still open to the viewer to reach his or her final conclusion to the riddle of the true identity of the ‘Woman in Bed’, upon which a properly Scottish verdict of 'not proven' still rests. It is, however, almost impossible not to agree with John Berger that this is indeed Hendrickje Stoffels.